Elles-Ils Islands - Durham Research Online
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Barnet, Marie-Claire (2011) Elles-Ils Islands' : cartography of lives and deaths by Agnes Varda.', L'Esprit
Createur., 51 (1). pp. 97-111.
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Cartography of Lives and Deaths by Agnès Varda
Les cabanes, elles sont faites pour y poser des outils, pour s’y abriter, pour s’y planquer,
pour avoir un coin à soi. Entre utilitaire et désir d’enfant, c’est un nid, c’est un endroit
pour garder des trésors et des secrets.
Mot calme, que le mot plage; ample et court à la fois; le a s’allonge, le g chuinte légèrement, la bouche prend le temps, en bout de phrase, de former la syllabe qui s’étale, plage,
sur un souffle. […] Nostalgie, amours perdus, clichés qui s’écrivent sur la page très tôt
reconnue des plages. […] La plage est mâle et femelle, cambouis et crinolines, abysses et
Je crois savoir pourquoi je t’ai donné rendez-vous dans ce lieu. L’eau. Je trouve que nous
avons une relation forte avec l’eau. […] Maintenant le soleil est parti, je suis toujours sur
la plage, les couleurs sont belles. J’écoute la mer. J’aimerais que tu sois là maintenant
avec moi pour l’entendre.
S A STARTING POINT, a simple but startling question to Agnès
Varda with a complex answer: “Que serait ‘être au bon endroit’
aujourd’hui?”4 Reminding us that Varda has always been “where
things happen(ed),” i.e. with the New Wave, in Cuba at the time of the revolution, in the USA with the Hippie movement and the Black Panthers, taking
part in the feminist movement, or, more recently, taking sides with the social
outcasts and the margins of a ‘liberal’ society, Jean-Marc Lalanne et JeanBaptiste Morain could not have been surprised by her answer, as no one
would be who has witnessed her impressive energy and enduring passion for
her work and for our world: “Là où je suis maintenant. Au travail. Témoigner
de ce que je comprends du monde par du cinéma et depuis quelque temps par
des installations” (Lalanne and Morain 39).
My article will analyze some of her latest projects, the (nomadic, international) art installations that she invents, modulates, and thoughtfully adapts or
alters, according to different spaces and cities. They follow therefore the location-scouting process of her films, driven by discovering places and people.5
I will focus on her relatively “new waves” and (mis)directions given in L’Île
et Elle, her monumental efforts to recreate her world linked to the Île de Noir© L’Esprit Créateur, Vol. 51, No. 1 (2011), pp. 97–111
moutier, if not to say the big expanse of the Atlantic ocean, around the twentykilometre-long island, off the Western coast of France, which was her major
exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in 2006, with echoes of her touring exhibitions of sea huts and portraits in Sète (2007) and Basel (2010):
Y’a un haut, y’a un bas.
Varda est en haut qui fait du cinéma (etcetera).
Agnès est en bas qui fait de la vidéo (L’île et elle).
À Noirmoutier, l’eau, c’est l’océan.
C’est intéressant et excitant pour moi que cet océan qui m’entoure et me limite. Toutes les vidéos,
documentaires ou rêveuses, ont été tournées là. Je voudrais que, même différentes, les séquences
du projet se répondent et recomposent mon île.6 [Don’t be misled by her “limits” or her possessive adjective.]
Cinematic and critical detours
A brief dip into the vast body of Varda’s film world can guide us along the
themes I will study, revealing some aspects of Varda’s varied conceptualization and staging of time and space in 3D. Her latest film to date, Les Plages
d’Agnès (2008), offered a striking retrospective and self-reflexion on her
work overall, revisiting many personal places (and exhibits), going in all
directions, dating back from her early days in Belgium and the south of
France. Filming and revisiting many of her work locations (photography, film,
art installations) across Europe, beyond the North Sea or the Atlantic Ocean,
crossing international borders, by following family ties, in the footsteps of her
husband, Jacques Demy, who led her to Noirmoutier and LA, she even recreated the former courtyard at ‘home’ in Paris, doubling as her photographer’s
studio or ‘taudis’ in 1951, now called with upbeat derision a “petit paradis
urbain” (Adler). This paradoxical ‘taudis/paradis,’ turning up in the ‘artistic’
shacks Varda is building around the world, might be another twist on Simon
Starling’s Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture, No 2)7 or Le Corbusier’s
famous Mediterranean “cabanon,” 8 all deceptively primitive sea huts.
No mouldy memory lanes of the past or dry deserts of loss and death were
expected. With massive truckloads of sand, she staged her own fantasmatic
“Paris Plage,” a “Daguerre-Plage,” right in front of her production headquarters and family home (Figure 1). This was one of her unexpected installations,
out of the closed circuit of an art gallery, which functioned as a real play area
for children, as well as a new lieu de mémoire, praised by the mayor (appropriating Pierre Nora’s historical and national sense, at the local scale of le
quartier). As such, it becomes “a gift to a community [… which] can come to
belong to it in a real sense,” as Alison Smith underlined about the re-appro98
FIGURE 1. “Daguerre-Plage.” Agnès Varda, Les Plages d’Agnès (2008). © CinéTamaris.
priation of filmed places by viewers.9 Varda could be seen playing the mixedup cliché of the grand grandmother, knitting or daintily raising an English
teacup under her shocking pink hat (Ascot or Demoiselles de Rochefort style),
sitting on a (displaced) posh velvet armchair. I’ll come back to the many ways
Varda keeps on exceeding both our expectations and the confinement of the
potential “white cube” of the art gallery.10 These sandy spaces, sparks of a festive mood, and her “vagabond” moves from one Agnès beach to the next,
show that Varda’s introspective film, whimsically called “octofilmodocumentaire” (Adler) is not simply looking backwards and gazing at narcissistic mirrors. To make an art installation provides a privileged space of encounter and
partage with others, as well as a dreamscape, in view of her own insistence
on the ‘imaginary’ reality recreated, and the part to be played by la rêverie, to
be shared by all: “Je voudrais que ces images, fixes ou animées, créent des
surprises, éveillent des pensées et suscitent des rêveries.”11 How to create and
inhabit an installation, or a film, drifting along in one’s own inner world:
“Mon projet. Raconter l’Île de Noirmoutier en imaginant la réalité.” This
inner world becomes the curious sea hut made up of old film strips, La
Cabane de l’échec (renamed La Cabane de cinéma for the Biennale d’Art de
VOL. 51, NO. 1
Lyon), “on peut s’y abriter en rêvant aux films qui nous ont plu” (Raspail
288). For Varda, installation art and film are meant to provide such freedom
to dream on and on, as echoed by the set goals of the DVD bonus material,
“boni”: “l’œuvre dérivée du film (Les Plages d’Agnès), [donne] une autre
amorce pour les gens qui aiment bien s’y retrouver, rêver” (Adler).
The many connotations of the term “cartography” that this article will
explore follow Pierre Sansot’s revisions of landscapes with a human touch,
and how we live in and out of all kinds of “variations paysagères” or how we
can even go back to a new idea of “paysage sentimental,” without any fear of
“épanchements larmoyants,” as “l’affectivité constitue un rôle constituant (du
paysage).”12 My article is also influenced by Giuliana Bruno’s re-imagining
of “(senti)mental,” corporeal, and “concrete” maps of our meanderings in art
galleries, all traces to be followed in and off the wall, or on the screen in the
“gendered” movie ‘house.’13 In revisiting Varda’s exhibition, I refer to
Bruno’s sense of the “haptic geography” of these peculiar “lived sites,” a
body- and mind-centred “atlas of emotion” to be found in art galleries, still
perhaps perceived as “a community of strangers,” but where one can be
“absorbed and absorbing,” moving along and moved by an intersubjective
dynamics (Bruno 64). Art spaces can become a funny hall of distorting mirrors, the very site to project (give and take) phantasms of (self-)recognition. I
also bear in mind Claire Bishop’s notion of the decentring experience of the
gallery viewer,14 and Florence de Mèredieu’s critique of compulsory interactive installation art15. My (open-ended) lines of thought are deeply indebted to
Griselda Pollock’s radical reconceptualizations of what she calls our potential,
virtual feminist museums,16 displacing the notion of the museum from the
aesthetical cage of canonical art history, situating it squarely in the middle of
our present socio-political and ethical arena in a way that reaches into the
riskiest corners of our unconscious. My goal will be to navigate along Varda’s
“differencing” (Pollock 14) art work, which is mobile, rather than simply
moving, always on the move, art work that is finally wall-breaking.
No real need for formal maps, since a completely new type of “sentimental cartography” (Bruno 64) and an altogether playful mapping seem preferable, the kind of treasure-island style of fun and games that La Fondation
Cartier provides in Le Petit Guide des enfants. But Varda’s personal lieux de
mémoire, doubling as vibrating lieux de vie, were highlighted on her own version of the map, linked to her coups de cœur for people and places, and locating her cat’s grave. Linking widows’ homes, front gardens, lounges or bedrooms to the backdrop of the ever-present beach, she gave us more than rooms
with views, as she collected series of interior landscapes to be pieced together
in her own puzzle of double paysages intimes/extimes.17 The video installation of Les Veuves de Noirmoutier can be seen as such a dual landscape,
within another huge, fragmented landscape, in an endless game of Chinese
boxes or boîtes à surprises, a principle she uses with the billboard of the blond
beach babe, La Grande Carte postale, where activating buttons reveals new
vistas with short films, even a ghostly Victorian mermaid.
This exhibition of (personal and others’) emotions required an installation
where waves and sonic space conveyed the tempo of a heartbeat, and a central or sacred space where heartfelt secrets of islanders could be divulged and
opened up as unexpected island treasures. I will explore what can be deduced
from the (re)writing of mental/emotional maps she leads us to in her installations, and the visual/textual puns she adds to holiday clichés, for example
questioning gender biased stereotypes, such as “La Veuve était (toujours) en
noir,” in Noirmoutier (not necessarily noir) or elsewhere.18
Ground floor and -0: emotional highs
Many critics have offered in-depth studies of all the areas of the exhibition,
and Varda herself edited a double volume on L’Île et Elle: the exhibition catalogue (which reads as Varda’s scrapbook and textual “boni” on the project),
and Regards sur l’exposition (a collage of essays from diverse experts, friends
and an anonymous and eloquent viewer).19 The catalogue and essays can be
read as virtual tours and multiple points of entry to Varda’s emblematic island.
The coupling of nouns and pronouns, l’île/il and elle, may have alerted visitors
that relationships between the sexes, as well as queries about gendered identity, could be another central theme and source of friction. A teasing and tickling of the imagination was announced, therefore, from the very start, outside,
by a combination of linguistic and visual puns. The gigantic glass doors of the
Fondation Cartier had a puzzling reproduction of Varda as a seated giantess,
creating the temptation to see the announcement of a self-portrait with an
inflated ego. Yet the accompanying extra-large picture of an empty blue chair
had meanings that visitors had still to decipher for themselves by passing
through the entrance doors (Figure 2). Marguerite Duras’ democratic wish,
“tout le monde sur la plage,”20 was vibrating around Varda’s installation, as visitors got their fair and colourful share of a popular communal spirit, represented in the (singsong) Ping Pong, Tong et Camping installation.
We have to take into account the inherent difficulty faced in re-examining
any temporary art installation, which constitutes a kind of “Ground Zero”
marked by the fear of radical erasure. As Isabelle McNeill astutely highlighted
in her luminous study of traces of our “filmic” experience and memory (on
VOL. 51, NO. 1
FIGURE 2. “The Blue Chair.” Agnès Varda, Les Plages d’Agnès (2008). © CinéTamaris.
and off the shape-shifting, status-changing, screens of film in cinema, museums, DVDs, or tout le cinéma produced in our unconscious), art installations
have to be experienced in situ and during a limited period of time (McNeill
72). These two spatial and temporal factors cannot be easily reproduced by
websites or books, even if the latter prolong considerably the ephemeral exhibition. I can only go back to my own (ever-changing) memory of the (necessarily subjective) experienced visit, as I reread reviews and catalogues, and
review the edited short films offered by the Arte version of Les Veuves de
Noirmoutier, drawing in the process almost unavoidable comparisons with
some of Varda’s filmic corpus. The attempt to grasp the temporary installation, which seems paradoxically to start with a kind of dead end or blind spot
once the exhibition is over and no longer visible, leads in fact to the proliferation of new perspectives I will underline.
A question arises, with the Freudian joke being on us: what do museumgoers want? A worse question would be, or a worse scenario for our identities,
potentially more shattered by experiencing a massive art attack: who or where
is this supposedly ideal(ised) “pensive spectator,” and not the (presumably
guilty, indifferent) passer-by, rushing through, hiding behind her/his digital
camera? The answer, by way of another question that follows a point raised
by W. J. T. Mitchell: what do museums want (us to do/feel)?21 “In an art
museum, writes John Walsh, the key function, the greatest and most valuable
thing it can do, is to give visitors a profound experience of works of art.”22
Beyond the vague profundity to which Walsh’s comment refers, I admire the
potentiality he underlines of what the museum “can do,” the shameless bringing back of “tears, light, and seats” in the museum gallery.
An art exhibition may go on living on in our (un)conscious much longer
than we can account for. That’s precisely what the anonymous letter included
in Regards sur l’exposition alluded to: the heap of salt that visitors could see
(no touching, there are limits to tactile encounters promoted in museums,
except on the last day when people were invited to take this fleur de sel
home), contained biblical and ecological undertones, created by an inscription
on the wall (which Varda suspects nobody read): “Si le sel perd sa saveur, qui
le la lui rendra?”23 In this visitor’s mind, the vision of a “nuage de sel” seemed
to morph and, paradoxically, went on growing, instead of being swept away
from the gallery (as was literally the case).
How to give a memorable ‘fresh’ sea view of La Mer immense, we may
ask. “It’s also a kind of dream because the screen is never enough, big, to
show a big ocean.”24 Varda’s double installation of a gigantic screen to project a beach scene, next to a ‘smallish’ photograph of this (still) scene, framed
in a gilded and ornate frame, pointed out that this challenging prospect cannot
be achieved easily and that many aesthetical questions (rather than answers
and solutions) were at the heart of her multi-media project. Another installation, Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier, gave other side glances at the beach on the
side panels one was invited to open or close, and so did the whole reconstruction of the crossing to the island, Le Passage du Gois, which lured visitors’ gazes along the walls where beach reverse shots were projected too.
Interaction took another dimension: spectators were endlessly invited to gain
new viewpoints and lose them, dropping your guard, changing positions,
while smiling at the beach film projected on an inflated lilo or funny “(écran)
dodu” (Varda, L’Île et Elle 54), or meditating around the ‘empty’ Cabane de
l’échec, with an irresistible (and partly invisible) seascape all around springing to mind.25 “The inflated mattress: it’s a way of saying, can we change the
way we look at things, can we change the relation?”26
The journey visitors could take was also an inner voyage, a potentially
“risky” business for both the artist and the viewer, as “emotional” minefields
loom in the artistic arena, as explored by Varda herself in many conversations
VOL. 51, NO. 1
on the subject.27 As La Mer …etSetera would make clearly visible, pictures
will be as easily smashed, frames lose their four borders, and the hall of distorting mirrors that reproduce the sea waves rolling on film/the walls will
come to no good: “c’est en même temps l’idée du puzzle et de la fragilité des
images […] tout est un peu illusoire.” Varda has no illusion about the limits
of representation, but she plays with 3D possibilities to destabilize viewers, in
and out of the comfort zone of their viewing practices in art spaces.
As we pieced together the “puzzle” or “polyptique” of the 14 screens of
Les Veuves de Noirmoutier, we were invited to share widows’ highly intimate
but conflicting testimonies, just as we may have ended up moving on to the
next room or weeping in public. Varda herself appeared on one of the monitors of this installation, looking ahead at the camera, but looking also at no
one, as her gaze became increasingly self-reflexive. She seemed to try not to
cry. Emotions spring from such uncertainty, tension, and non-dit. As Varda
well knows, she does not control our reactions; however, she tested her own
vulnerability when revealing her own grief about losing Jacques Demy: the
footage of a ‘homemade’ film showing her grief- and Aids-stricken husband,
trying hard to smile, interrupted the viewer’s sole focus on Varda’s sphinx-like
expression. We had been greeted by the same puzzling portrait of Varda with
the blue chair, reproduced on the giant entrance door, and now each visitor
had to gaze back, via the smaller monitor in the corner of the puzzle, having
to come face to face with hard-to-tell tales of unbearable loss.
The walking-around process in art galleries was slowed down and even
interrupted by Les Veuves. One had to sit, take time, and change seats to view
the whole installation, fragmented into fourteen screens in the darkened room,
with headsets and messy cables for “la ronde [des] chaises musicales”28 reproducing the very theme of the 35mm film shown as the central piece, the procession and dissolution of a strange parade, widows walking around a dark
wood kitchen table, out of place on the beach. The other short films portraying interviews with widows, going on a loop, added undeniable movement
and a variable (focal/emotional) blur to this personal and collective “portrait
brisé.”29 Varda created a dual and dizzying space of “solitude” (Frodon) and
potential compassion, keeping instant identification or “easy” sentimentality
at bay. We took her place by proxy, as if sitting across the (other) kitchen table
of some of the widows. Literally and metaphorically, we sat across from her
(not so silent, singing) self-portrait, too. It’s not that simple to look people in
the eye, or identify with them, even if Varda’s visual tricks made it appear as
if one could. We might remember that Marina Abramovic’s staring performance in New York provoked uncontrollable tears.30 By multiplying view104
points, Varda mastered the subtle art of stirring a tide and flow of emotions,
illuminating the ambiguity of all that is said or seen, not so much to avoid, but
to bring us straight back to, the heart of messy feelings (the widows’, her own,
even ours). As Marie Darrieussecq eloquently summarized, this was definitively not easy or collective viewing, even if one may have felt like reaching
out to one’s neighbour (to pass on the headset, or another kind of deeply
embodied experience at the museum), when one realised Demy’s symbolic
blue chair remains empty, next to Varda’s: “On se tourne vers son voisin, on
a la gorge serrée, mais lui, il est en train de sourire, ou de rêver. Assis sur ces
quatorze chaises, on pense tous en même temps à la même chose mais différemment (Darrieussecq, Cinq photographies 41).
Varda brilliantly mixed the inside and “offside,” the off-screen or unsaid
of her tales, filming insights and outdoors, at many levels: told from private
homes or (secret) gardens, stories of the past unfolded, including the taboo of
suicide, dreadfully “silly” accidents (sailors who cannot swim), the raw turmoil of a recent bereavement, uneasy relationships with uncongenial partners,
harsh work in the salt marshes or relentless poverty (living in a “real” shack,
with three children, little coal, and only 50 centimetres around the
omnipresent kitchen table) were contrasted to tales of enduring love, proudly
displayed and cherished pictures, a shared sense of resilience, and quite strikingly constant reminders of the present and life going on, offered by shots of
the working fields or the sea harbour. The chosen documentary approach did
not romanticize, but repeated focus on hands turning their wedding rings
made us see what the filmmaker wanted us to notice, a body language that
tugged at her own heart strings.
As Bibi van der Zee commented upon “melting hearts” facing “climate
change art” in Copenhagen, “weeping only takes you so far.”31 Where to go
next? Anywhere, and especially “sous la surface des choses.”32 Varda’s profoundly ‘moving’ experiments with reframing, refracting, and (de)constructing pictures/movies in galleries, and all her curiously uncanny sheds or
“maisons rouillées,”33 as encountered and sung in La Mer by Charles Trenet
that go on touring around the globe, probably take us back and forth in time
and space in different ways, elsewhere, rather than where we thought we were
standing, momentarily contemplating her pieces.
Exposing family clichés and gender types
Just as Varda refuses to distinguish between her life and her film work, she
likes to mingle inextricably the private and the public. This doesn’t mean she
doesn’t question, show, and tell us about issues relating to boundaries, fricVOL. 51, NO. 1
tions, and contradictions. The individual is linked to the collective, and vice
versa, in a way that is always socio-political and highly charged with feminist
influences. As Varda stated in 1975, and as is echoed in Les Veuves de Noirmoutier, “Je suis une femme mais je suis aussi toutes les femmes.”34 She may
insist she has recreated her home as cinema (La Cabane de l’échec became La
Cabane de cinéma), but her sense of a carefree ‘home sweet home’ may be just
as well located in the museum itself and may even migrate to her metaphorical
cabane, the courtyard next to her “coin bureau”: “Mon début d’apaisement et
de bonheur, c’est quand même dans les musées, ou bien alors dans ma petite
cour carrée de rien du tout, avec quelques arbres, les enfants, les petits-enfants
qui viennent, ça, c’est un autre domaine où chacun peut trouver du plaisir et du
bonheur” (Adler). We might recognize a corner from Le Louvre in this much
loved “cour carrée.” Moreover, as ambivalent paradoxes and dédoublements
have shown before, we cannot expect only signs of playing happy families in
her art installations. Commenting on a house’s “zones d’ombre” and family
dynamics glanced in an “imaginary” family album, Varda states the limits of
family stories: “Finalement, les maisons racontent bien les familles, et les
familles racontent bien ce qu’elles veulent, et les photographies racontent un
peu de ce mystère, de ce que personne ne veut raconter.”35
“L’Eden existe, c’est une plage”: let’s add a question mark to the statement, as Varda’s irony and wit had already shattered “Le Bonheur” and the
bourgeois dream of private property in the south of France.36 Let’s consider
another parallel between family and “un îlot de paix,”37 a little h(e)aven and
retreat from the sound and fury of the world. Varda’s use of a marine metaphor
to figure her family is both far-reaching and far-fetched. How can we forget
the sea all around, omnipresent in her art work or in this mapping of her kinship, and underestimate the treacherous associations our collective imaginary
creates involving the sea, la mer/mère, homonyms that become absurd when
the indifference of the sea is recognised, as Laurent Joffrin has noted.38 Far
from circumscribing her family/familiar world to the (maritime, matriarchal)
privacy of a territory which also connotes negative images of insular detachment and exclusion,39 Varda opens up her holiday home, herself, to the public,
throwing the shutters literally half or wide open, in the Tryptique de Noirmoutier (visitors’ active participation required), as she deconstructs and reinvents all kinds of houses. There is nothing simply or exclusively “maternal”
(Frodon) in houses. It is no wonder Varda ends up not recognizing her own
kitchen, used as the backdrop of her Triptyque.
As Sandra Flitterman-Lewis aptly noted, Varda seems more interested in
pointing to “le ‘portrait impossible’ [de la féminité] [qui] résonne de possibi106
lités multiples.”40 La Cabane des portraits, confronting visitors with rows of
portraits of islanders, men facing women, and flanked by iconic symbols of
gender, pictures of a lighthouse and a mussel, created such potential in this
challenging impossibility. Pollock commented that erasing modernist work on
abstraction and reducing Georgia O’Keefe’s own intentions to represent
female genitalia as (her famous) flowers can only lead to simplistic and “ludicrous” associations (Pollock 117). A similar work on form and frame is clearly
visible in Varda’s photomontage. Pictures of faces may bear signs of ‘femininity’ (“Être une femme, c’est avoir un visage de femme”41), but these pictures were playing with frames within frames (a picture was a backdrop for
each portrait), adding extra Freudian symbols with a wink and question
marks. These portraits could be seen as weirdly blank, the tip of the iceberg
of the (naked) body, as exhibited in La Grande Carte postale which, at first
glance, showed nothing but a blond sex bomb—the sexist type of seaside
postcard does look obsolete, the whole odalisque looks weird, as Varda’s
daughter’s head has been added to the body. However, manipulating a console
triggered short films, one of them showing little boys playing at being Peeping Toms (Tati’s M. Hulot or Demy’s La Luxure  sprang to mind), and
Varda’s representation of the loaded female body had a resolutely ambivalent
and playful side. A childish and childlike voyeurism is also displayed here via
the short film, and, if that voyeurism is turned right back upon the curious
viewer, with echoes of dubious jokes or classic slapstick comedies (the
Lumière Brothers’ L’Arroseur arrosé ), one may bear in mind that this
voyeurism is not a gender-blind practice (both boys and girls seek visions of
nudity of each other) but a genderless one, as Varda commented upon “kicks
for kids” shared by her daughter, or as Jenny Doyle noted about her sisters and
her twelve-year-old self, studying male nudes and looking at as many porn
catalogues as their young male neighbour.42
Other visual tricks were on Varda’s mind: she wanted us to think of the
invisible, the impossible or the complicated to tell, the secret sexual lives
these faces were not showing (Varda, L’Île et Elle 43). We may think of
Jacques Derrida’s answer to the “ultimate” question to ask philosophers, “leur
vie sexuelle […]. Ce dont ils ne parlent pas.”43 La Cabane des portraits is also
an invitation to reconsider the too good/too bad to be true masculin/féminin
split in the cabane de noirmoutin(e)s, which will find echoes in Les Veuves de
Noirmoutier. Marie Darrieussecq noticed the striking “femme au beau visage
d’homme.”44 One might have seen a few more “bi-gendered” faces, which
meant facing one’s own definitions of gender, as well as wondering about
married life, or life and death, as in life with an enhanced sense of death. As
VOL. 51, NO. 1
a widow states, “Je fais couple avec un mort,” we start to guess many questions Varda has asked or implied: what does it mean to be(come) a widow, and
live with/without an impossible “absent presence.” Another widow reminds
us that her solitude is also relative: “ici, la maison est habitée. Y a quelque
chose de lui qui reste là, je ne suis pas seule”? Astonishingly, some bedrooms
were flung open to visitors in the filmed interviews with these widows, and
between the lines, when (unheard) questions focused on the widow’s changing sides (or not) in the big bed, one probably thought also about the loss of
sex (or desire), or the ways the body and mind could try to cope, to bring back
presence, warmth, passion: “je fais du feu.” As Roland Barthes pointed out, it
is far easier to reproduce linguistic clichés about sex and weddings than evoke
and connote no-sex with mourning the “première nuit de noces. Mais première nuit de deuil?”45
There was no question of introducing a suspicious elephant in the room,
by hiding Demy’s AIDS or bisexuality, for Varda does not limit identities to
(confusing) signs or symbols of sexuality, sexual orientation or gender, preferring to hint instead at le non-dit, and all the complex issues of privacy while
respecting Demy’s own silence, as explored explicitly in Les Plages d’Agnès.
Nothing was ever fixed in black and white in her film or her art work, as
shown on the beach/ballet scene in the ‘family reunion’ in Les Plages d’Agnès:
all grandchildren and children wear white, ‘children’ are also grownups, and
Agnès is (temporarily) in black, underlining divergences, and a sense of confusion instead of fusion, with her “immediate family”: “Je ne sais pas si je les
connais [...] les comprends.”
So what to add, after all is said or shown as indicible? How to make the
explosion of contrasting colors that Varda can produce so well strike us even
deeper (see the Warholian infusion of Technicolor in the travelling shot at the
beginning of Les Cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma )? A lingering
memory of colour I have from the exhibition of L’Île et Elle is not linked to
the exuberant, plastic world of Ping Pong, Tong et Camping, it’s in the portrait of “Agnès with the blue chair.” But what I found more mesmerizing than
the retouching of the déjà vu chair (the style is Van Gogh’s Chair ) was
the contrast of two touches de couleur, her black widow’s uniform displaying
one sleeve in raspberry pink, the other in avocado green.
Varda’s recreation of her sea world opened up an absorbing sonic space of
waves, echoing visually and reverberating audibly from the basement, where
Ami Flammer’s violin score for Les Veuves de Noirmoutier was played.46
Jonathan Raban has illuminated the “obsession”, and ongoing popularity of
the waves, by examining the source(s) of their polyphonic potential: “for several thousands of years, the waves have been talking power and sex and death
to us: it’s hardly surprising that we watch and listen so raptly.”47 Highlighting
that even if waves are one of the most ancient, “most laden and suggestive,”
symbols on earth (“the first Neolithic decoration on the rim of a cooking
pot”), Raban concludes that their magnetic appeal is far from being clear-cut
and explainable, as perceptions will inevitably differ: “People hear in the
waves what they bring to the waves” (186). Perceptions rhyme with the personal. Flammer’s violin piece will also generate different reactions, even if it
has been described usually as monotonous and melancholy. The (widows’)
music can therefore sound like a pensive piece of string music, getting more
complex on repeated listening (as heard on a loop). Far from being flat, even
if the pitch is medium range, the sound makes audible a dual melody, with
subtle but real friction, a long movement of the bow resolving the friction at
the end, while the accompanying waves in the soundtrack play a third line in
this orchestra and never seem to want to go away.48
We don’t control images either: “images, they grow in ourselves, they
move, they become something else.”49 Back on the beach, the empty chair left
by Demy, painted blue by Agnès, paradoxically not to be “so blue” about loss,
death, and memory, reminded me of Jane Hirshfield’s lines about loss and the
relationship “between the material world and the world of feeling.”50 I didn’t
see resignation on Varda’s (trans)fixed face but what could look like Hirshfield’s sense of “acceptance” (with another puzzling chair) in the aftermath of
death: “I long for the calm acceptance of a bentwood chair” (Hirshfield 88).
Blue, the favourite colour with variable properties, as analyzed by Michel
Pastoureau,51 will also bring endless associations. The light blue chosen by
Varda did not quite match Demy’s visible jean jacket, recalling instead Les
Demoiselles de Rochefort’s blue, blue headbands for little ballerinas, blue
café tables, blue shutters, and the same light blue, blown out of proportions,
invading the whole screen, and joyfully cancelling all missed opportunities at
the very end of his film.
There is another portrait of Varda we will not see exhibited but may catch
in airports: the artist and filmmaker explained her recent fondness for wheelchairs before flights, used to avoid queues, as well as to keep her camera
steady, shooting strictly forbidden travelling shots (Adler). Art changes directions, and in L’Île et Elle, if it was not “a move to forget,” as Emma Wilson
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persuasively noted about Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, it is still decidedly
beyond the boundaries of expectations or expertise, experimentally sauvage,
about “salvaging” (not salvation), and “a move on to the future.”52 Varda is
still looking for another ‘free’ space to send us back her news about ourselves:
“Je fais des portraits brisés, qui sont cassés, dans un miroir cassé, parce que
ça m’intéresse, parce que je sens que les gens sont un peu en pièces et que
peut-être on peut témoigner de ça en les regardant attentivement, en inventant
des brisures artificielles qui sont des miroirs cassés et des choses comme ça,
donc je recherche quelque chose d’autre—une liberté.”53
Cited in Thierry Raspail et al., Le Spectacle du quotidien, Xe biennale de Lyon (Dijon:
Presses du réel, 2009), 288.
Marie Darrieussecq, Il était une fois… La plage (Paris: Plume, 2000), 5.
Sandrine Bonnaire, Le Soleil me trace la route (Paris: Stock, 2010), 227.
Jean-Marc Lalanne and Jean-Baptiste Morain, “Retenir quelque chose qui s’en va,” Les
Inrockuptibles, 681 (16 December 2008): 39.
Laure Adler, “Hors champs,” France Culture, 17 May 2010.
See http://demy.chez.com/06ileetelle.htm (accessed 15 September 2010).
See http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/turnerprize/2005/simonstarling.htm (accessed 15 September 2010).
See http://www.e-architect.co.uk/london/le_corbusier_exhibition.htm (accessed 15 September 2010).
Alison Smith, Agnès Varda (Manchester: Manchester U P, 1998), 90.
See Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley:
U of California P, 2000). See how “the ‘white cube’ has a surprising longevity and is reinvented in the latest museum concepts,” in Christopher Grunberg “The Modern Art
Museum,” in Emma Barker, ed., Contemporary Cultures of Display (London: The Open
University, 1999), 48.
See Agnès Varda, La Mer… etSetera, Sète, 7/04-14/06 2009, available at http://crac.lr.free
.fr/expos/2009/etsetera/lamer/index.html (accessed 16 September 2010).
Pierre Sansot, Variations paysagères (Payot: Paris, 2009), 12.
Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York:
Verso, 2007), 64.
Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (London: Tate, 2005), 130.
Florence Mèredieu, Arts et nouvelles technologies: art vidéo, art numérique (Paris:
Larousse, 2005), 230-31.
Griselda Pollock, Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum: Time, Space and Archive
(London: Routledge, 2007).
Michel Tournier, Journal extime (Paris: Gallimard, 2002).
Cf. Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End (London: Granta, 2009), 13.
Agnès Varda, L’Île et Elle and L’Île et Elle: regards sur l’exposition (Arles: Actes Sud/Fondation Cartier, 2006). See Antony Fiant et al., eds., Agnès Varda: Le Cinéma et au-delà
(Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009); Shirley Jordan, “Spatial and Emotional
Limits in Installation Art: Agnès Varda’s L’Île et Elle,” Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, Sites 13:5 (2009): 581-88; Isabelle McNeill, Memory and the Moving
Image: French Film in the Digital Era (Edinburgh: Edinburgh U P, 2010), 51-53 and 70-76.
Caroline Champetier, Marguerite Duras, un siècle d’écrivains, France 3, 1996.
W. J. T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago:
Chicago U P, 2005).
John Walsh,“Pictures, Tears, Lights, and Seats,” in James Cuno, ed., Whose Muse?: Art
Museum and the Public Trust (Princeton: Princeton U P, 2004), 78.
Charles Trenet, La Mer (1946).
Interview with Chris Darke, Agnès Varda about L’Île et Elle, London, Ciné Lumière, 28
October 2006. My warmest thanks to Julien Planté for the recorded interview.
See Jean-Michel Frodon, “Two Exhibitions Redux: Godard and Varda in Space,” Cahiers
du cinema, 615 (September 2006), http://www.cahiersducinema.com/article848.html
(accessed 25 September 2010).
Varda, Agnès Varda about L’Île et Elle, 2006.
See Adler and Darke.
Marie Darrieussecq, “Cinq photographies de veuves et Les Veuves de Noirmoutier,” in
Varda, L’Île et Elle: Regards sur l’exposition, 40.
See Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History, 2005.
See Varda’s discussion of Abramovic´’s retrospective, The Artist is present (MOMA, New
York, March-April 2010), in Adler and http://marinaabramovicmademecry.tumblr.com/
(accessed 1 October 2010).
http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/dec/11/copenhagen-climate-change-art (accessed 13 October 2010).
(accessed 26 September 2010).
See Agnès Varda, Réponse de femmes (1975), in Varda tous courts (Paris: Ciné-Tamaris,
Agnès Varda, Une minute pour une image (FR3, 1983), in Varda 2007.
Agnès Varda, Le Bonheur (1965).
Mathilde Blottière, “Les Plages d’Agnès: Demy tout entier,” Télérama, 3070 (12 November 2008): 50.
Laurent Joffrin, Libération (21-22 August 2010), Carnet Été, VI.
“C’est pas facile quand on n’était pas de l’île,” Les Veuves de Noirmoutier.
Sandra Flitterman-Lewis, “Sans toit ni loi: le ‘portrait impossible’ de la féminité,” in
Ginette Vincendeau and Bérénice Reynaud, eds., 20 ans de théories féministes sur le
cinéma, CinémAction, 67 (1993): 176.
Varda, Réponse de femmes, 1975.
Varda, Agnès Varda about L’Île et Elle, 2006. See Jennifer Doyle, Sex Objects: Art and the
Dialectics of Desire (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2006), xi.
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, Derrida (Jane Doe Films, 2002).
Darrieussecq 2006, 40.
Roland Barthes, Journal de deuil, Nathalie Léger, ed. (Paris: Seuil/Imec, 2009), 13.
Ami Flammer composed scores for some of Duras’ and Rohmer’s films.
Jonathan Raban, Driving Home: An American Scrapbook (London: Picador, 2010), 186.
My warmest thanks to Geoff McIntyre for his musicological expertise.
Varda, Agnès Varda about L’Île et Elle, 2006). About lack of control and Groddeck’s influence on Varda, see “Avec Jacques Demy,” Stéphane Delorme and Laurent Laborie, Rencontre avec Agnès Varda, “Avec Jacques Demy,” Cahiers du cinéma (December 2008),
Jane Hirshfield, After (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2006), 88.
See Michel Pastoureau, Bleu: histoire d’une couleur (Paris: Seuil, 2000).
Emma Wilson, “Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse: Salvage and the Art of Forgetting,” in Johnnie Gratton and Michael Sheringham, eds., The Art of the Project: Projects and Experiments
in Modern French Culture (Oxford: Berghahn, 2005), 92.
See bell hooks, “Many folks feel no sense of place. What they know, what they have is a
sense of crisis,” Belonging: A Culture of Place (New York: Routledge, 2009), 1.
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